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Distances and proximities

Photo: Guy Cools

Part of the Invisible Diaries series

Week 12 / Day 6


Since the lockdown started, weekends have become even longer pauses within the larger one, dedicated mostly to family time. I find it a bit hard to start today’s entry, so I decided to recycle some of my thoughts and writings from earlier in the lockdown. Already in the first month, there were a lot of interesting initiatives and debates. I attended two events: one organised by the Choreographic Center O Vertigo in Montréal with Together at a distance. The body and touching after distancing as its title. And another, organised by Pelma in Cyprus, within the series In Touch with Touching, called Art and Constants of Trauma, in preparation of my own contribution to the online conference, organised by the Steps festival in Switzerland on Post-Corona Creativity.

In the first days of the lockdown and its measures, I was reflecting a lot on how the imposed social distancing was threatening what I always considered one of the most valuable characteristics of our field, that is the way we use and even celebrate (physical) proximity. From early on in my career as a dance dramaturg, I have used proxemics to both analyse and create meaning in performances, and I regularly use it when I teach workshops to choreographers. Proxemics is defined as “the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel is necessary to set between themselves and others”. It distinguishes ever widening circles of intimate space, personal space and public space. It has been widely studied in sociology (looking, for instance, at the effects of population density) and anthropology. And it is mainly a subcategory within the study of non-verbal communication since it is a system, we use both consciously and unconsciously to give meaning to our reality and express ourselves. One of the basic insights that comes from the study of proxemics is that meaning only derives from relationality. An object or a body on stage is only meaningful in relation to other bodies. And spatially this relationship is established, not by distance, but by proximity, closeness. The relationships with people that are physically ‘close’ to us are always the most meaningful.

If now the long term measures taken to control the Covid-19 crisis talk about a one-and-half meter economy (as they do for instance in Holland) or will only allow a spectator in the theatre on every ten square meter – this will not only change the economics, but more fundamentally also the way proxemics creates meaning. The social or physical distance rules will imply at the very least a shift in ‘meaning’, but very likely also a possible ‘loss of meaning’, further disintegrating our sense of community. As artists, who choreograph ‘bodies in space’, we will have to address this loss of meaning in our work.

As we are going back into the rehearsal room and public performances are allowed again, first outdoors and then indoors, we have to question ourselves how we will relate to the more long-term imposed measures and what we want our audiences to experience. We don’t have to behave in an unruly and unsafe way, as happened on the British beaches in the past few days, but we might ask ourselves if there are any creative ways, to slowly and in a safe way guide our audiences back to a place where they enjoy again proximity, after months of distancing.

In the online conference in Cyprus, one of the participants stressed the importance of continuing to develop counter-narratives to the techno-scientific narratives that are dominant in the media and in the political decision-making process. In Montréal, someone suggested that as artists, we need to continue to create new rituals for our time. She suggested for instance, a ‘ritual of hand sanitising’.

In the past months, the economy and the market came to a halt, so did our field, but it didn’t interrupt creative thinking. Almost all the creative processes I was involved in as a dramaturg continued and were adapted to the new reality. With Siamese Cie, a dance company founded by Koen Augustijnen and Rosalba Torres Guerrero, we had started the rehearsals for Lamenta, a large scale dance production that was supposed to premiere at the Athens Festival and in Avignon. It’s a performance that explores the traditional Greek laments, discussed in my Day 4 entry. After one week of rehearsals in the Duncan Dance Research Center in Athens, Koen and Rosalba had to return to Brussels where they live, and the nine Greek performers spread out over Greece to their families and homes, while I was in Vienna, and Georgina Kakoudaki, the other dramaturg in Athens. We were able to continue the creative process for at least another six weeks, with Koen and Rosalba giving the dancers individual tasks, they could explore and film in their own, often limited home spaces. All of us meet at least once a week online to reconnect and discuss the process. There are only certain things you can do in this way, as all explorations were individual solos, while the production wants to explore how these laments and the dances accompanying them support community sharing and building. But there was also the immediate realisation that the slowing down of the process, allowed for our preparation to deepen as well as to involve everyone’s voices. Because of that, we are confident that when we go back to the studio (which will hopefully happen in September), the process will have gained enormously.

Photo: Lamenta

Lamenta. Photography by Rosalba Torres Guerrero.

Something similar happened with all the other projects I was involved in. Sebastian Weber, a choreographer based in Leipzig got a small Covid-19 emergency grant to bridge the crisis and compensate for the cancelled engagements. With it, he created Viral Moves, which was a six-week-long, online brainstorm session with all his performers and artistic collaborators to imagine what kind of work the company wants to create after the lockdown. Before, Sebastian has never involved that many voices in reflecting about his projects and there is already now the realization that the future work will hugely benefit from the extra time and attention that was invested.

If on the one side of the generational spectrum my queer grandaunts were my spiritual teachers, equally important and instructive at the other side have been my three sons: Filip (35), Steven (33) and Julian (3). I rounded up their ages, since they all have birthdays coming up soon and I particularly enjoy the alliteration of the number three.

I was much too young (hardly 21) when I had my first son. Being a parent/father involved a lot of trial and error, balancing family life with my own professional ambitions and dealing with some of my own old traumas. Already then and certainly now with Julian, when I have both more experience and patience to just stay present with him and let him take the lead, I realised how much I could learn from just observing their development; how they created their identity by often just reinforcing the potential that was already there from the very beginning.

As I grew older and became, hopefully, a bit wiser, I started to discover more and more crossovers between being a parent and being a dramaturg, and with that I don’t mean I take a parental role with the artists. Both as a parent and as a dramaturg, you have to stay humble because it always remains unpredictable how your guidance and support will be received and what will actually contribute to the other’s development. The only advantage I have as the ‘elder’ is that I often realize faster what I can learn from them. I hope I have still many more years to come to continue to learn from my sons and all the artists, I have the privilege to accompany in their work.


Guy Cools is a Belgian dance dramaturg, currently living in Vienna. He has worked as a dance critic and dance curator. He curated from 1990 till 2002, the dance program of Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent, Belgium. As a production dramaturg, he worked amongst others with Jean Abreu (UK), Koen Augustijnen (BE), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (BE), Danièle Desnoyers (CA), Alexander Gottfarb (AT), Lia Haraki (CY), Akram Khan (UK), Joshua Monten (SUI), Arno Schuitemaker (NL) and Stephanie Thiersch (DE).

As a dramaturgical mentor, he has been mentoring Anghiari Dance Hub, the International Choreographer’s Week in Tilburg, the project Danse et Dramaturgie in Switzerland; the Biennale Dance College in Venice and the Atlas program of Impulstanz in Vienna. He lectures and teaches at different universities and arts colleges in Europe and Canada.

His most recent publications include The Ethics of Art: ecological turns in the performing arts, co-edited with Pascal Gielen (2014); In-between Dance Cultures: on the migratory artistic identity of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan (2015); Imaginative Bodies, dialogues in performance practices (2016) and The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel’s les ballets C de la B, co-edited with Christel Stalpaert and Hildegard De Vuyst (2019). With the Canadian choreographer, Lin Snelling, he developed an improvised performance practice Rewriting Distance that focuses on the integration of movement, voice, and writing.

He is currently using the time-out of travelling, working at home on his next book, Performing Mourning, Laments in Contemporary Art.


Portrait photography by Pawel Wyszomirski.


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